In November 1993, a group of eight students from my high-school English class in Attawapiskat agreed to collaborate on a Christmas play. We wrote our own script which we presented at a combined elementary school / high school Christmas concert at the JR Nakogee Elementary School gymnasium. Our group of eight students from Vezina Secondary School of differing age groups and grades were excited to take part. The project was led by our English teacher Rhonda McKay, a bright young woman who started her teaching career in Attawapiskat. This was one of the first plays to be performed in our new high school, which was only two years old. This was a special occasion as very few high school students from Attawapiskat had ever put on a Christmas school play for the community.
For a month we worked every day after school on that original play. Instead of performing a traditional European story like “A Christmas Carol” or a rendition of the biblical birth of Jesus Christ, we decided to produce something that was original and that we could connect to. We built a storyline around a Cree family living in a remote community like Attawapiskat. After much discussion we also came up with the idea that we should provide some comment on an important youth crisis that was happening in the community. Together we developed a storyline that involved a young girl’s involvement in gas sniffing and the reactions of her family.
We gave the story a Walt Disney twist by creating a narrative where one of her younger brothers wished for everything to get better. His wish was heard by jolly old Santa Claus, who magically helped the troubled young girl. The story ends when our star returns home to apologize and promises never again to take part in gas sniffing.
It came as a surprise to us that staging a play involved so much. We had to do everything. The stage at JR Nakogee Elementary was just a bare open raised platform at the end of a gymnasium so we went to work to produce a real stage like one we would see in a theatre. Our teacher ordered giant rolls of black fabric, which we strategically hung from the rafters to create a dramatic backdrop. The maintenance staff pitched in to assist us in developing the lighting system so that we could properly illuminate the stage. At the new high-school technical shop, we worked together to build props and sets, which depicted a living room, an outdoor scene and Santa’s workshop complete with a fireplace.
I recall feeling unsure about trying to do such an amazing thing as staging a play. This was new ground for the people of Attawapiskat as nobody I had ever known had experienced anything like a live theatre production in the past. We thought Christmas plays were for children and we worried that we would just turn ourselves into a laughing stock in front of our community. Also, most of us were just so low on self-esteem that this project seemed to be almost impossible and out of our reach. Cree people are shy to begin with so live theatre was something that scared us all.
The night of the performance is a blur to me. All I can remember was the need to complete the play as best as I could. We all felt very important that night as most of Attawapiskat filled the gymnasium to watch our performance. Our stage looked great and the lighting was the next best thing to professional. The dark drapes made it look like something from a dramatic opera and our props were actually convincing in producing a local Attawapiskat home and Santa’s workshop.
Unfortunately, our theatre critics had one great complaint. You see, nobody ever heard most of what we said on stage. The fact that we had no sound system and that most of us spoke softly meant that our audience had to guess what was going on. The only line anyone clearly understood came from my cousin Peter Nakogee when he bellowed “ho ho ho” from under a heavily stuffed Santa Claus suit. True to form I made everyone laugh at the wrong time. I had two roles to play and after doing my best at being a brother to the star I had to dash off stage left and around the back while changing my clothes to return on stage right through Santa’s fireplace on my hands and knees, in an elf shirt and hat. Everyone could see me behind the curtains as I ran and changed costumes frantically and that caused great laughter.
I recall spending that entire month leading up to the play as pure joy even though we were worried and scared of the process. When I think about it now, all that excitement about the play really helped in so many ways. All my troubles and worries had to take a back seat to helping to develop this play. All’s well that ends well, as they say and although nobody ever heard a word I said I knew that they were excited at just being able to participate in this strange bit of organized insanity call theatre. I learned that day that anything was possible.